Growing Through Choices
Berrien Springs Public Schools (BSPS) is dedicated to providing students and families choices for the way they want to learn. Whether a student wants to learn in the building, online, online in the building, at home, in a center, at their own pace, on their own time, or in the community, Berrien Springs finds a way to help each student grow to his or her full potential. No matter where a student enters or exits the district, they are part of the BSPS family and will graduate with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions as defined in their Profile of a Graduate.
Over 6,000 students across the state, with nearly 2,000 on campus, are impacted by this small district in the far southwest corner of Michigan. Approximately seventy percent of enrolled students are at-risk. Fifty-six percent of students in all BSPS programs are white with the remaining coming from a very diverse group. Andrews University, whose campus population represents 92 countries, is in Berrien Springs. Children of Andrews University’s faculty, staff, and students attend BSPS so the district has many English as a second language learners. The district also teaches students in other parts of the state which have varying demographics.
Program offerings in the district include two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, a virtual academy, an alternative education school, a parent partnership, Link Learning, Success Virtual Learning Center, and West Michigan Virtual Academy. In all buildings and programs, parents are encouraged to be partners in their child’s learning and participate in school events with community members.
Dave Eichberg has been the superintendent of this growing district since 2016. After graduating from Berrien Springs High School, he attended Central Michigan University and graduated with an education degree. His career includes teaching, coaching, and administrative roles in the Grand Rapids area and St. Joseph, MI. In 2009, Dave returned to Berrien Springs as the high school principal prior to becoming superintendent. He believes every student deserves a personalized learning experience and works with his staff to make that a reality.
The district makes intentional decisions to keep the focus on students and their learning. From systems to technology, programs to staffing, and facilities to relationships, BSPS looks at learning from the student perspective. “How will this decision impact student academic, social, and emotional growth?” is often a question raised in their conversations.
An important component for personalizing student learning is the use of technology. The district issued devices to every student early on, and teachers use Schoology to share content and additional resources as individual students need it. Mifi cards/units are available for students so they can access the internet from home. BSPS Virtual Academy, Discovery Academy, Computer Science STEM , and Link Learning programs rely on computer technology to assist with teaching and learning. Formal and informal student data points are collected and shared on digital platforms to see where interventions are needed and technology often plays a role in the intervention.
Essential standards are being aligned between programs to provide students a continuum of PreK-12 learning no matter the program of choice. Measuring student growth has evolved over the years as BSPS has found new models and tools to collect student data points. Beyond achievement test scores and graduation rates, student academic growth is measured through demonstration of their learning, progress made in courses, and course completion. The district adopted standards-based grading in 2013 and uses Marzano’s conversion tool to convert those scores to grades when needed. The staff at Link Learning was instrumental in developing a software program called Pulse that they use to track student data and growth.
Teams work together between buildings to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students as they look at learning through the lens of the learner. To provide choices and help students grow, the teachers and administrators need to truly know them. Berrien does this through surveys, ice breakers, greeting students at the door, and attending their events. Teachers share about their lives outside of school in order to build relationships with their students. Using the World of Work’s RIASEC model also allows teachers to get to know students better as they explore careers. Knowing their students even extends beyond graduation. The district interviews past graduates during their holiday break to learn how well BSPS prepared them for life after high school and what they could do better.
It is no surprise that their vision statement begins with the word together. While the district has grown in size over the past 10 years, involving all stakeholders (i.e., staff, students, parents, and community) in the educational process remains absolute in their mission. There is a strong focus on students’ needs and academic growth no matter the program of choice. Because of their heart for kids, the district has taken on many difficult challenges as they’ve grown, and the growth in programs has provided more growth not only for students but for staff as well.
Superintendent Dave Eichberg credits the success of Berrien Springs’ programs on the community who accepts choices in education. “Our organization has been able to change and evolve to serve kids most effectively because of the support of our community. Our Board is also incredibly supportive and allows leaders in this district to lead,” which has allowed Berrien to build a culture of learning and achieving. Leaders at BSPS view change as opportunities and spend their time, resources, and energy innovating, taking risks, and creatively problem-solving instead of seeing barriers and getting tied up in fixing problems.
As the district continues to move forward in their student-centered learning journey, challenges they are working to overcome are how to provide wrap around support for families at different levels, a system to track essential standards across the district, a digital system to document interventions across the district and report standards-based grades to parents, a K-12 digital portfolio platform, and an onboarding system for new staff. While this list may seem extensive, it aligns with their goals that focus on student learning and the systemic changes that are necessary for that learning to occur.
The current teaching and learning environment in our country tends to be punitive whether teachers (e.g., evaluation system) or students (e.g., grades) are doing the learning. BSPS is on a journey to change the learning culture in their district. “When we start to see the art of teaching through the lens of the learner, that’s when growth happens,” Mr. Eichberg believes. They incorporate more giving and receiving of praise and view feedback (i.e., evaluation) as an opportunity to learn and grow. Reflection is promoted and consequences are minimized to encourage people to take risks in their learning.
Administrators model how to teach by providing explicit instructions and asking for evidence of learning during professional development. As teachers experience learning from the student perspective, they start to change their work habits and incorporate their lessons learned into their teaching. In addition, administrators meet individual teachers where they are and co-create plans to grow in their teaching and learning, again modeling what they expect from teachers. For newly hired staff, BSPS uses an onboarding coach and is building training and onboarding systems to help them transition into this student-centered learning culture.
As district enrollment substantially increased, BSPS reflected on and renewed their understanding of processes, essential standards, learning goals, proficiency scales, and instruction through the help of a district Quality Review Team (QRT). Principals made sure this work was documented in a repository for all teachers to access. In this process, teacher evaluation changed to focus on classroom practices and their effectiveness in increasing student achievement. Also, evaluations include resources teachers need to improve through more personalized professional learning.
The district spends a significant amount on adult learning and staff have choice in how they learn and grow. In addition to external conferences and training, teachers participate in personal learning communities (PLCs). Their Teachers Supporting Teachers program (observing other teachers and providing feedback) is embedded into the instructional day and the district staff runs most professional development rather than outside experts. Berrien Springs is moving toward competency-based education (CBE) for both staff and students. Staff apply their learning when they plan and practice CBE in their classrooms and receive support through PLCs, coaching, and evaluation.
Growing from good to great includes clear instruction, modeling best practices, measures of accountability that focus on growth instead of punishment, time for reflection of learning, and individual support. BSPS continues to provide opportunities for teachers and students to continue to grow on their individual learning paths.
The following are highlights of the growth opportunities offered at Berrien Springs Public Schools.
Positive Behavior Intervention Support Academy
Berrien Springs’ Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) Academy is an example of how the district is dedicated to helping every individual child succeed. Consistent data shows that academic achievement is tied to student behavior and attitude. To improve student academic achievement, Berrien Springs has intentionally changed the structure of in-school suspension with the hopes of decreasing out-of-school suspensions through the use of the PBIS Academy. The intention is to create a positive culture to decrease the repeat behaviors that affect the learning environment. PBIS builds on the Shamrock Pride values to create this culture.
PBIS Instructor, Luke Antvelink, takes a proactive approach to changing the culture in the district. Rather than sitting in an in-school suspension room waiting for students to be sent there, Luke and his staff are seeking out students who may be struggling. He believes student behaviors can be changed through relationships. “I sit with kids at lunch, talk to them in the halls, pull them aside if I hear about something going on in their lives that may lead to disruptive behaviors, and I co-teach so I can be in the classrooms with them,” said Antvelink. “I want to understand why the student behavior is happening so it makes sense to talk to kids early on and develop those relationships.” In addition to building relationships with students, he also builds them with teachers, helping them to understand the purpose of Shamrock Pride for recognizing and rewarding positive behavior.
While Antvelink would prefer to be out in the buildings interacting with students, sometimes they are sent to the PBIS room. “I want to keep the atmosphere here as far away from discipline as possible and be seen as the guy who is picking up the pieces.” He wants students to see that there are consequences to behaviors, both positive and negative, and views the program as a character advancement program. “Students don’t sleep in this room. There is tutoring, independent practice, and behavior intervention time.” Eventually, he would like to add peer-to-peer mentoring with a career pathway focus. Similar to in-school suspension, the length of the stay in the PBIS room depends on the severity of the behavior, but the goal at Berrien Springs is to keep students learning and get them back in their classes as soon as possible.
Personalizing with Project-Based Learning
After working closely with home school families, the district started looking at project-based learning (PBL) as an option and visited High Tech High in California. In the project-based model, subjects are integrated rather than taught as stand-alone blocks such as math, language arts, and social studies. PBL is integrated into secondary instruction focusing on four Cs…collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. All projects in the PBL classes are built around these district competencies.
The district also uses Project Lead The Way (PLTW) curriculum at all levels. The elementary program uses PLTW Launch for their science curriculum, the middle school takes semester electives through PLTW Gateway, and the high school has a STEM program using PLTW. A growth mindset is integrated into all PLTW courses. The location for the high school PLTW program is fitting as the building was used as a job skills workspace before Berrien Springs purchased it.
For 90-minute blocks, all year long, 9th-12th graders can study biomedical science, engineering, or computer science. Students say these courses have more hands-on science than the high school science classes and prepare them for the workforce. In the biomedical course observed, students examined evidence in microscopes, read autopsy reports on their Chromebooks, wrote questions and comments on the desktops, and recorded notes in their scientific journals. In the Principles of Biomedical Science course, students used the same equipment and tools used by lab professionals to determine factors that led to the death of a fictional person. BSPS also offers a second biomedical course called Human Body Systems. Students in this course learn about the human body as they add organs and tissue to a skeletal Maniken®.
It takes more than engaging PLTW curriculum to make the program successful. The teachers and community are a large part of its success as well. Teachers go through extensive training to teach PLTW. High school teachers spend two weeks “taking” the course so they have completed everything the students will be doing. Middle school teachers spend one week, while elementary teachers have a three-day training and online professional development on the modules. Staff also train other staff. Businesses and organizations partner with the district by serving on the advisory council while others provide guest speakers or open their doors to students for field trips or internships. Students are also able to earn college credit for the PLTW courses.
Growing in Elementary School
Giving students opportunities to grow begins early at Berrien Springs. BSPS opened their first Young 5’s program in 2015-16 at Mars Elementary. The program uses similar curriculum and standards as the kindergarten classes, and is designed as a growth year for students. Many who attend Young 5’s become strong student leaders in their kindergarten classes.
Students in the elementary schools check their growth three times a year through NWEA. They know their scores, how to read the report, and what they need to work on to improve. This ownership of learning and understanding of growth begins in first grade. Comfortable seating that can be rearranged for a variety of learning activities and group sizes can be found in classrooms and the school culture includes filling buckets to show their Shamrock Pride in themselves and their school.
At Sylvester Elementary, students in grades 3-5 participate in WIN (What I Need) time for 40 minutes every day. During this time, students who need extra support in reading or math meet with their teachers in small groups of 1-3. Music and PE teachers provide supplemental activities to students who are at or above current expectations. This additional time allows all students to grow in their learning at their own pace.
Every student at Sylvester is viewed as an individual and staff provide every opportunity for them to learn at their best. For students who have a hard time staying in the green zone, a “crash and bump” room has been created. A student may go to this room with an adult they trust and use the equipment to jump, kick, bounce, and crawl. After expending this energy, the student can return to the classroom ready to learn. One student uses the room every morning for 10 minutes and has not had an office referral since starting this practice.
Sending a teacher to the Adult Sensory Room when a class has a lot of office referrals is sometimes needed for students to learn. In these situations, another teacher or administrator will “tag in” the classroom so the classroom teacher can “tag out.” In the Sensory Room teachers can doodle, work puzzle books, and spend time reflecting on what is happening in the classroom. This time allows both students and the teacher to keep growing.
Berrien Springs offers elementary students and families the ability to learn together at home 100% of the time. A Michigan certified teacher is assigned to each child to assist families with content, strategies, and support. Like all other students in the district, virtual students have a variety of choices including online and home school partnership elective courses.
Options for Growth in High School
The feel of Berrien Springs’ campus is similar to a college campus where students are coming and going all day. Students fluidly move from one program to another, taking courses at the high school, the virtual academy, Project Lead The Way STEM building, CTE at other schools, and through the Parent Partnership. In order to have this movement around campus be successful, the district has high expectations for behavior which are discussed and modeled during the first full week of school. A high level of trust in the students is also required.
Ask Berrien Springs High School Principal Ryan Pesce the ultimate goal for their students and he will tell you, “teaching kids to be independent and how to advocate for themselves to reach the goals of their plan.” Students interviewed support these ambitions with examples. When requested, they are allowed to retake or redo assignments, test out of content, receive credit for paid work, and graduate early. There is also flexibility to explore CTE options like firefighting and surgical careers.
“We are fortunate with all the options we have.” ~Emily, high school student
The high school focuses on growth more than the grade. Rubrics are discussed at the beginning and end of units and are sometimes referred to throughout. Students can see for themselves how well they are learning the content by using the rubric and discuss gaps with their teachers. All grading is done through Schoology which students prefer because they see a realistic grade as they progress through the content.
Flexibility for students is created through a variety of avenues for learning. Students can choose to complete their education in the classroom, virtually, by taking career tech (CTE) courses, and/or dual enrollment courses. Any BSPS high school student enrolled in any program can choose to take career and technical education (CTE) courses. Programs are offered in each of the career pathways by districts in the ISD and students can earn college credit for many of the programs. Almost 50% of BSPS juniors and seniors participate in the CTE program, the highest in the county. In addition to CTE, students can accelerate their college education through dual enrollment and participating in the county’s Early College consortium. By taking a variety of these courses together, students can complete their high school degree as early as three years or earn an associate’s degree in five “high school” years.
The partnership between Berrien Springs Public High School, Berrien Springs Virtual Academy, and the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership gives every student enrolled in Berrien Springs the flexibility to take classes in a schedule that fits their needs. For example, a public high school student could take core classes in the building (including some dual enrollment) and electives online. Another student may take 100% of their classes virtually, and another student may choose to attend the public high school for math and science, take language arts and social studies online, and electives through the Parent Partnership.
In 2009, Berrien Springs began their 6th-12th grade virtual academy. Like all other programs, the goal for Berrien Springs Virtual Academy students is to have a plan when they graduate, not just a diploma. The Virtual Academy graduation rate is 100% with 72% of graduates going onto higher education and 28% finding employment. Virtual students develop career and college readiness skills through flexible learning options. To help them develop those skills and an after-high-school plan, 9th- and 10th-grade students focus on pre-CTE and exploration of career and college options. Deeper learning occurs in their chosen path in 11th and 12th grades.
What sets Berrien Springs’ virtual program apart from most high school online courses is the alignment with scope and sequence of the in-building courses and the support students receive. Teachers are very critical to the success of online students. Berrien Springs’ online teachers continually check with their students for understanding of the content. Four virtual teachers (math, ELA, science, and elementary/middle school) are physically located in the state-of-the-art facility where students come to work. At least two of the virtual teachers are in the building at a time so one can assist in the lab while the other can pull students out for interventions or for small group lessons. The interventions and small groups bring back some of the social aspects lost in traditional online classes.
The behavior expectations in the Virtual Academy lab are similar to other programs at Berrien Springs, an on-task atmosphere where work is expected. Students have the option to take Edgenuity courses with a Berrien Springs online teacher or take courses through the statewide micourses.org catalog. A pre- and post-test is taken for every BSPS course to measure student growth. Growth data, based on NWEA testing, is an average of 1.75 years in the areas of Math, Reading, and Science. All tests are proctored either on campus or through the use of technology where the teacher can view the student’s desktop as they are taking the online test.
High school students looking for a non-traditional way to obtain their high school diploma can attend the Berrien Springs Discovery Academy. The Academy assists students who have barriers to their education. Some of these barriers include homelessness, behind in credits, desire to work at a faster pace, teen parent or pregnancy, bullying, and work schedules, among other issues life throws at them. Berrien works with any student who is looking for an alternative to traditional schooling and is willing to follow the structure of their program.
The Academy offers flexible, online, self-paced courses with caring staff to help them succeed. While students are required to come to the building on campus, they can earn the freedom to work from home. Full-time teachers are available to students both in the building and online, and regularly check-in with students to keep them on track to graduate. Students and teachers talk bi-weekly about their long- and short-term goals, and parents are kept abreast on their student’s progress.
Student growth is measured two to three times per year using NWEA testing. PSAT9, PSAT10, ACT Work Keys, and SAT testing is also done each year. Teachers review student progress and meet every three weeks to discuss the data and determine ways to improve the growth and achievement of all students. There are two 18-credit tracks for students to complete their high school diploma and a graduation ceremony is held twice a year. Eligible students can take CTE and dual enrollment courses, and those who gain employment while in high school may receive work-study credit.
Every spring, Discovery Academy hosts a job fair for students to talk with local employers. They are developing a workforce development program for their students with a goal to begin offering this option in Fall 2022. The lead coordinator for the program is working with MichiganWorks! and other community partners to provide resume assistance, mock interview opportunities, job shadowing, and internships and apprenticeship opportunities for students who are interested and qualify to participate. The district or community partner will provide transportation to/from the job site and students may receive high school credit for the training. The goal in this program is not just a high school diploma but for students to have a job or college/skilled trades plan upon graduation.
Berrien County Truancy Academy is housed in a BSPS building and run by the Berrien Springs’ staff in partnership with the Berrien County Trial Court system. The program is for students who end up in the juvenile court system for poor attendance. All K-12 districts in Berrien County can refer students to the program that is funded by the BSPS’ foundation allowance and the county. This program is beneficial for the 40-50 students who may have otherwise dropped out of school.
Flexibility. Integrated content. Putting students first. Project-based learning. Parental support. Community engagement. Student ownership of learning and accountability. These are words and phrases that describe the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership and ideals that many public educators would like more of in their classrooms.
The Parent Partnership, initiated in 2008 by home school families, is open to all K-12 district students, homeschool students from Berrien, Cass and VanBuren counties, and private school students who are Berrien Springs residents or attend one of the schools located within the BSPS District. Students can choose from community project-based electives, dual enrollment, CTE, and virtual courses. Every student has a Michigan certified teacher assigned to them as well as a mentor. Several mentor teachers are homeschool parents (some who hold teaching certificates) and are well connected to the community and understand the needs of non-traditional students.
Sharon Haynes, Parent Partnership Director, is the right person for the position. As a former homeschool parent, she understands the needs and concerns of parents who want to be more involved in their child’s education and who are looking for choices. Working with her team, they develop interesting, challenging, and interactive PBL courses for the program. Although these non-traditional students do not spend time on campus, students have been introduced to using technology such as Google Classroom and Google Forms to communicate with mentor teachers and Facebook to share resources and ideas.
The Parent Partnership has helped Berrien Springs understand flexibility in educating children in the district. Students at the public school can take the Partnership electives. Partnership students take BSPS virtual courses. Virtual students take electives with the Partnership. Not only is there flexibility in location and offerings, but individual students can move at their own pace. Eighth graders in the Partnership have taken college courses and students have the opportunity to explore unique career offerings such as artistic welding. Robotics is one program that began in the Parent Partnership and now students from virtual, public, and home school can all participate together.
The Parent Partnership is a unique, innovative program designed to round out a student’s education, whether in preparation for a trade, college, or life-long skills and hobbies that will serve them and others well in the future.
Students who have dropped out of school in other parts of the state also have an opportunity to finish high school through Berrien Springs’ Link Learning program. No matter where they are on their learning journey, Berrien Springs provides a personalized path to graduation. Most students who enroll in this program are six or more credits deficient (which is equivalent to one grade level), and many of the 13 Link Learning centers across the state receive multiple inquiry calls daily. In addition to the centers, Link Learning partners with local school districts to provide a personalized learning experience for their struggling-to-graduate students.
The average age of Link Learning students is 18.6 years old. While students enroll for a full year of classes, they work on and complete one at a time. This sequential learning allows students to focus on one subject and can celebrate success on a more regular basis. Course pass rate is 100% with most students completing 3.56 courses a year. Considering the trajectory these students were on when enrolling in the program, this is an indicator of success in their lives.
Most students go to a center for support at least once a week. In addition to learning from experienced online teachers, students receive support from social workers, special education teachers, an ELL teacher, and more. Students are also assigned a mentor who communicates with them about their lives, school, and goals multiple times a week. Through this network of support, students develop trusted relationships which lead to success in their chosen path. Regardless of the support needed, all students receive multiple contacts throughout the week.
The same systems, processes, and expectations used in BSPS’ brick and mortar environments are also used at Link Learning. Every student has an Educational Development Plan (EDP) and must meet essential standards. In addition to completing courses, students have extra-curricular options. Each center offers a variety of opportunities for students to explore. Some of these include e-Sports, 3D printing, aname, arts and crafts, and young parenting club.
Like brick and mortar, students who struggle in the online environment go through the MTSS process. The need for intervention comes from looking at data points in Link Learning’s Pulse program to find areas where students are struggling. The data points are analyzed to discover why the student is struggling and a strategy is determined to help them. Sometimes the solution includes a home visit, exchanging a computer, or just listening to them.
“It’s great to see students turn a corner and have a renewed sense of purpose after we’ve been to their home,” Link Learning staff
A key strategy in helping this population feel success is celebrating their accomplishments and effort. Students are asked early on how they would like to be recognized. Students choose shout outs on Facebook, a phone call or text home, a certificate, a personal note, or other ways personal to them. Staff look for ways to celebrate their students’ success, both big and small.
Support for parents is also important for the success of their children. For students under the age of 18, the goal is to connect with parents at least once a week. Parents must sign up for the Edgenuity portal during orientation and can sign up for Pulse communications. Link Learning centers also run a Parents Night once a month. Parents and students learn about the program through marketing and in-person events.
Link Learning staff receive about three hours per month of professional development throughout the year. While there are a variety of PD groups staff belong to, aspects of each group are woven into the other groups and incorporated into weekly staff meetings. PD focusing on the organization as a whole includes vision, overall performance, and teamwork topics, but also include relationship building, working together to be student centric, and creating and improving relationships using “love languages.” Just as students set goals for themselves, each region and center does the same. Regional and center PD time is spent analyzing and discussing their data, celebrating areas of success, and then identifying strategies and a plan to reach their goals.
“These reflections are critical as staff need to identify potential solutions themselves to their situation. Staff have a voice in if they need coaching or training. We have found the most successful coaching and training is when they are invited in and request it,” shared Kristi Teall, Link Learning Executive Director
Individuals have the choice to complete optional micro-credentials for personal professional development. Staff can earn badges and receive Link Learning SWAG (also given to new students) through the process. Individual training and coaching is also provided for staff based on their Quality Assurance reports. Another form of PD occurs in monthly collaboration groups. Staff can choose or may be assigned to a Mentor/Mentee, Building Bridges, NEST (new staff), PLC and Round Table group.
Leadership capacity is built through individual Regional Director/Executive Director meetings. Discussion topics include data, school improvement goals, center/regional goals, collaboration groups, and the psychological needs specific to their areas. These personalized conversations are a catalyst for change as they challenge thinking and provide strategies and coaching or training when needed.
When students are given choice and voice in their educational pursuits, along with support and encouragement from adults, they will grow academically and succeed in their life pursuits. Berrien Springs Public Schools is committed to providing opportunities for students to reach their full potential in whatever path that they choose. And every path offered demonstrates a culture of learning that has its foundation in The Shamrock Way.
Berrien Springs Public Schools is willing to share their experiences around student-centered learning with other districts. Contact Dave Eichberg or Angie Cramer at the contact information below:
Author: Lisa Sitkins, President and CEO, LSS Connections and Consulting, LLC, May 2022